Author Archives: Mandy Manning

The Recess Disconnect

Two things you should know prior to reading this post: 1) I am writing through the lens of both a parent and a secondary educator (meaning I’m far from being an expert), and 2) my child has two amazing Kindergarten teachers. They are passionate and kind, they ensure my son loves school, and I can tell they care deeply about him. This is what every parent wants for their children. With these two admissions, I will proceed. I recently received two unsettling emails from my son’s teachers.

The first email was expected, but still a bit disappointing, as we all want to believe our children are little well-behaved geniuses. So, the hard truth is a bit difficult to swallow. According to the email, my son struggles at times to pay attention, he is easily distracted by his peers, and when he becomes unengaged he is often stubborn and unwilling to reengage, especially when the task is a difficult one. Lack of focus and inability to pay attention sometimes is exactly what I would expect of a five-year-old. He is still learning to be a student, his attention-span is growing, he loves to play with his friends, and he tends to shift focus from more difficult endeavors to easier ones. As far as the stubborn element, well, he is my son. I’ve learned these characteristics are fairly common among the Kindergarten-set, as evidenced by the discussions I’ve had at birthday parties with other parents. Also, in that same email, my son’s teachers had plenty of praise for him. He is helpful, kind, and a good friend, all awesome qualities, so I wasn’t particularly concerned.

The unsettling part came when I received the next email — about recess. In it, my son’s teachers outlined the new plan. After the winter break, they would be cutting lunch recess from 45 minutes to 30 minutes (which includes time to eat). The rationale for this decision was that per district recommendations, the first half of the year, Kindergartners are allotted an extra 15 minutes at lunch to meet their social-emotional needs, but that the time should be cut during the second half of the year. The reasoning for the cut was not explained, nor the implication that Kindergartners somehow no longer need the social-emotional support of a longer recess after only four months of school. The email went on to describe the practice they’d been doing as a class to prepare for the change. They’d implemented a “quiet lunch” in which the kids must be silent during the first 5 to 10 minutes, in order to focus on eating. They could then socialize for the remaining 5 minutes of lunch and 15 minutes of recess.

I’d also recently had some discussion with area elementary teachers about this topic. Along with being a parent and an educator, I am also a teacher leader. I recently took on the role of facilitator for the Washington Education Association’s National Board Teacher Leadership Academy. NBCTs in my region sign up and we work together to develop teacher leadership plans. Through our discussions I have learned a great deal about elementary school recess and have discovered that not all schools are implementing recess in the same ways. Anecdotally speaking, schools with fewer behavior issues have more recess, while schools with more behavior problems, have fewer minutes of recess.

This knowledge in combination with the change in my own child’s recess, got me thinking about the rationale for the cut in recess time. Many of us parents received similar reports from the teachers about inattention and disengagement. This discovery led to more discussion of the consequences for such behavior, which often meant removal of free-time and/or sitting with head down while the other students participated in an activity. It appears to me there is a logical disconnect. Students are losing social-time for poor behavior, but schools with statistically fewer discipline issues have more social-time. To me, that would suggest that increased social-time leads to more positive behaviors. This thought process warranted a bit of research.

I found several studies and articles supporting my hypothesis that increased recess decreases behavior issues in the classroom. One study in particular, by Theresa Phillippo at Hamline University, was a comprehensive overview of the impact of recess on behavior in Kindergarten. This researcher found “evidence that students are able to display more self-control when given more opportunities for movement during the day. Students were also more successful at showing soft skills such as cooperation, problem-solving, negotiation, compromising, and forming new friendships.” The author asserts that “a positive connection was found indicating that recess has a positive effect on classroom behavior. Results indicate that the long-term effects of providing recess may outweigh the short-term effects or reducing recess.”

I am not an expert, and an afternoon of research into recess does not qualify me to give advice to my son’s two amazing Kindergarten teachers. I do believe, though, that our schools need to think more deeply about their strict focus on seat-time and learning, especially in Kindergarten. Free play has such a positive impact on a child’s ability to connect and bond with others, problem-solve, be self-motivated, and is just plain good to get the wiggles out. These qualities and abilities are essential to being ready to learn.

I plan on visiting my school board and giving them my opinion about district policy concerning recess in Kindergarten. I will include the research I did today, but I’d love some additional resources to support my assertion that we should be adding minutes, not subtracting them from recess and that removal of free time is not an effective consequence for misbehavior, if anything it only makes the problem worse. Do you have anything to add? Let me know in the comments below. I can definitely use the help.

Accessing School Spirit

The email came out on Thursday. Another spirit week is underway. Winter sports is the reason and the theme is the season – winter and holiday cheer, complete with a staff dance based on the “12 Days of Christmas.” The English language department will take on “2 turtle doves” – not sure what that will look like, but we’ve been brainstorming. My first thoughts, though, are always on my students, equity, and access.

My usual questions are: 1) Have the leadership students considered the diversity of our student body? 2) Are multiple student groups being represented? and 3) Do all students have an opportunity to participate? In addition to general cultural responsiveness, I also ask myself can my students, brand new English language learners, participate and will participation be meaningful for them.

The answer to the first question is “no”. Even the staff dance number has a specific cultural lens. If students don’t celebrate Christmas, it will have little meaning. At the very least, it will be amusing for them, watching their teachers and other staff members making fools of themselves in front of the entire student body. There’s merit in that, watching the adults in their lives be silly. Imagine, though, the greater impact it would have should the activity reflect all of the members of the study body, their interests and beliefs.

As for the second and third questions, sports cons (otherwise known as pep rallies) rarely represent multiple student groups. They celebrate the athletes and encourage others to be athletic supporters. I do give our school leadership props in their effort to include as many students as they can through class competitions and the like, but with the multitude of sports teams, it’s difficult to eek out time for the non-athletic. The cons are exuberant and fun, but many students feel left out of the celebration.

Here’s where dress up days come into play. Dress up days are intended to create an in-road for the less involved students. They begin the build up to the big event at the end of the week and are intended to promote school spirit. However, each time I receive the email, I go through the list for the week and must determine which days I will attempt to make meaningful to my English language learners, and during which days I will encourage them to participate. Usually these are few and far between and some weeks I don’t even bother at all for several reasons.

Access is the main issue in determining the importance of tackling dress up days with my class. There are two main access issues. First, many of the days are culturally specific to the U.S., to Spokane, and even to specific neighborhoods. They also have socio-economic implications, meaning they are only accessible and relatable if you grew up in a middle or upper class household.

The second access issue is money. Many of the days require students to purchase items in order to participate. For example, Jersey Thursday, which is a common one for our school. Students either have to have access to their own jersey as members of a sports team, or have the funds to purchase a jersey of their favorite college or professional sports team. This is also true of any day that requires specific elements like flowered shirts or days specific to an era.

The cost is often unattainable for many students. They can choose not to participate in that particular day, but this usually leads to not participating at all. Who wants to admit they simply can’t afford to participate in one dress up day? They may as well choose to sit the whole thing out. At least then their peers will assume they just don’t want to, not that they can’t. It’s easier to pretend school spirit simply isn’t cool than to admit you can’t afford to look spirited.

This week’s dress up days are a little more accessible. I may encourage my kids to participate, particularly in those days based solely on a color. Even twins day isn’t too hard, if you choose something simple. As far as Friday goes, with its ugly sweater theme, I might be able to lend a hand in that area, maybe we’ll make our own. I need to go a step further, though. Instead of checking the list and determining whether I’ll encourage my students to participate, I should instead speak to the leadership class. Ask them to consider culture and cost when planning events in which they want all students to participate.

What have your experiences been with spirit weeks? What are your suggestions in increasing access? Participating in school activities is important to each student’s confidence and success at school. Some simple steps we can take in ensuring access during spirit weeks is to check the demographics of the school. We may be surprised by the diversity we find. Choose days which are easy to accomplish, for example days based on colors (make sure the colors are common and students would likely have them in their closets), pajama days, mismatch days, or any idea that does not require purchasing items in order to pull it off. We might also consider having at least one non-sport assembly which celebrates the other activities and people in the school who do not participate in sports. An example is the culture assembly at Kent Meridian High School in Kent, Washington. It is essential we make every opportunity accessible to all of our students. It is through access that we achieve equity.



Teaming to Our Strengths

My first year in education, I worked as a Paraeducator in a Designed Instruction classroom. At the time, I didn’t know how deeply that experience would impact my practice as a classroom teacher. I spent one year in that DI classroom. In that time, I instructed students one-to-one on reading and life-skills, and also worked with the whole class to build a boat, to learn independent living through grocery shopping and cooking, and also coached the Special Olympics basketball team. These were amazing experiences and sparked my initial interest in becoming a certified teacher, but the most important impact came from how the lead teacher worked with our team. I didn’t know how much his actions affected me until I took a position in which I worked in concert with others and realized how much I had learned from him.

Most of us have heard the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child.” The same can be said in education. Student success does not happen as the result of one educator’s effort, there is a whole team involved. The way that team works together can make or break a classroom. Thinking back to that first lead teacher I worked with, I learned so much. The most important lesson he taught me, he did not expressly say, but rather he showed me through his interactions with the educational support staff in our classroom and through the respect he showed in both word and action.

As a team we had weekly meetings in which the lead teacher would specifically elicit feedback and suggestions from the entire staff in the classroom as to next steps, what worked and what didn’t work during the week and how we, as a team, could better meet the needs of the students. He recognized that we, as Paraeducators, were the ones working most closely with the kids. We had knowledge of their progress and interests that he did not have, because he mainly taught whole group, while we worked beside the students. He also greatly respected and worked toward each of our strengths, encouraging us to take on roles in the classroom that would have the most benefit to our students and also help us grow in our work. He created an environment in which we all felt empowered and encouraged to work independently and collaboratively. We felt safe and respected and, thus, also treated one another with respect and kindness.

It has only been in the last seven years that these lessons have really come into focus for me. Not only do I work in a team with sign language interpreters and a bilingual specialist, I also act as an advocate through our local education association for my co-workers throughout the district. Most often, when my colleagues come to me for something related to the association, it deals with interpersonal issues with their co-workers and their working environment. Many are Paraeducators, who feel disrespected by the lead teachers with whom they work and consider their environment to be hostile.

Recently, as a board member, I met with the Paraeducator Board to develop Paraeducator Standards and discuss alternative routes to certification. Inevitably our focus always falls on the element of our work that relates to the creation and implementation of training for administrators and teachers on working with Paraeducators. This is a massive element currently missing from teacher preparation programs. Teachers are expected to work with Paraeducators and other support staff, but are given little to no guidance on what that work looks like or how that sounds in a classroom. Plus, lead teachers are often given mixed messages from supervisors as to their role in reference to Paraeducators. In most cases, the teacher’s job is to guide instruction in the classroom and ensure everyone understands their roles and responsibilities in working with students and within the general structure of the classroom. Often, however, Administrators rely on teachers to provide supervision, which is not a lead teacher’s role. This can create a heirarchy in the classroom, which empowers the lead teacher, but makes the other staff in the room feel they do not have a voice and are not respected.

As I work with the board to plan training, and I also work with my co-workers to help them find resolution, I remember the lead teacher I worked with when I was a Paraeducator. His actions were simple. He created an environment in which every staff member felt ownership. He did this by using inclusive language. There was no such thing as “mine” only “ours.” It was our classroom. The students were our students. Second, he didn’t assign us roles. He directed us toward positions and responsibilities which best matched our skills and took into account our opinions about what we liked and wanted to do. We had four Paraeducators working in that DI room. Some of us worked exclusively one-to-one with particular students, others of us floated around. He also capitalized on our individual training. That’s how I became the basketball coach. I had played in college. Even though he loved coaching the team, he recognized that I might have some skills in this area that would better benefit the kids on the team, and so offered the position to me. That lead teacher had the ability to see the students and their needs first. He did not wield power, but instead shared responsibility.

I have carried these lessons with me throughout my 19 years in the classroom. Even with years of practice, I still have to be cognizant because it’s so easy to fall into language patterns and roles which diminish my classroom partners. When we work as a team, collaborate, capitalize on one another’s strengths, and empower one another, we create the best environment for our students.

What about in your schools? How do you, as an Education Support Professional or Lead Teacher, navigate roles and responsibilities in the classroom? Let’s start a conversation.